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sourdough problem

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AnnieT's picture
AnnieT

sourdough problem

I have been merrily plodding along with my version of sourdough starters ( 2 at the moment) but took some time to re-read Bill's posting on maintaining a starter. To my horror it seems I have been doing everything wrong, so I decided to start yet another one from Bill's recipe. I have to admit I had been using what I consider to be inferior flour because our store was out of King Arthur, and my starter didn't look too happy. I measured out the required amount and added KA all purpose flour and spring water and stirred like mad. The mixture was thicker than I expected, but I put tape to mark the level and left it on the counter. It did develop bubbles but hardly rose at all even after sitting all day, so last night I tossed half and fed it again. It is now 12.30pm and there are bubbles but no sign of rising. Bill, if you are out there and not too busy, could you please tell me what you think I did wrong? I gave my unhappy looking old starter some Bob's Red Mill organic rye and it perked right up. Maybe ignorance was bliss and I should have muddled along? A

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bwraith's picture
bwraith

Hi Annie,

I sure wouldn't jump to the conclusion that if you aren't doing it my particular way, therefore you are doing it wrong. If you have a starter that raises bread following whatever method you have, then maybe there is nothing to fix.

I'm a little confused, because the write-up I have in my blog describes how I maintain a starter that is already started and healthy, but it sounds like you are trying to start one from scratch? If you are trying to start one from scratch, then I would refer to one of the several good explanations of starting a starter posted here on TFL, like SourdoLady's method, Zolablue's write-up on the Glezer firm starter, or the Calvel starter on Mariana's blog. I'm sure there are others I've forgotten to mention. I've tried all those methods at one time or another, and they do seem to all work fine.

I don't think I've understood the nature of the problem, so could you explain more about what is not working or has failed in particular. Also key details of the process you are following would be interesting, like how much you are feeding the starter and how often, what is the consistency of the starter, what temperatures are prevailing, what flours are you using, any other factors you think may be affecting your starter.

Bill

AnnieT's picture
AnnieT

Hi Bill, and thank you for responding so quickly. I created my starter using yogurt, from the book Breadwinners Two, and it had always seemed healthy and the bread was fine. My second one is really a collection of the excess which I hate to discard, and I keep it more as back up. I had bookmarked your maintenance process, and when my main one began to loook strange I decided to take a small amount of it and follow your directions. What I realized was that I hadn't been doubling the starter each time I fed it - I would take out a cup or half a cup and replace that amount with flour and water. As I said, I had been using different flour and figured that was the problem. What I mean by looking strange was that the surface was covered with small bubbles, more like froth. I would feed the starter and let it rise, though sometimes I would put it straight back in the refrigerator if it seemed warm in the kitchen. Often it would be full of strands and hard to stir, which I took to be a good sign, and as I say, my bread was usually successful. I was more concerned about my new experiment which was using 16g of old starter, 30g of spring water and 34g of KA all purpose flour. I stirred it vigorously and left it on the counter using masking tape to mark the level. It developed a few bubbles but didn't rise after sitting all day, so I discarded half and added more flour and water. It has been sitting out for 48 hours and is finally slightly above the marker. Lots of bubbles but a weird texture, not at all like starter. More like very smooth pancake batter. A couple of ideas: a) the original starter wasn't strong enough or b) I didn't wait long enough before discarding and adding more flour and water? Meanwhile I fed the sickly looking starter with some rye flour and used some of it to make Susan's Country Semi-sourdough which is delicious. Oh, another thought, my refrigerator is much cooler than the one that came with the house - the thermometer reads 40*. Clutching at straws here. I have Ed Woods book and he talks about washing his starter which scares me silly. I think what I am wondering is, what will be the results of doing what I have been doing? Was the starter telling me something? Thanks so much for your help - yet again, A

bwraith's picture
bwraith

Hi Annie,

Well, it's hard to tell from afar, but if the starter doesn't rise well after a full day at room temperature, which should be hopefully somewhere around 75F plus or minus a few degrees, when fed 16g:30g:34g, then it may not be all that healthy. If your temperatures are way warmer or colder than 75F, like above 80F or under 70F, then I would try to find a way to get the temperatures more moderated, as BZ did by setting a glass of ice water next to the starter or using a thermos as L_M is setting out to do.

If it were me, I would just persist feeding it every 12 hours 16g:30g:34g and leaving it at room temperature. I would sprinkle in some whole rye at every feeding if you have it, to help it start back up.

As far as the consistency, at 90% hydration or so, which is what you are doing with that feeding approach, it should be a thick paste using KA AP. That paste should rise by double in something like 4.5 hours, but of course every starter is quite different, so that is only a guideline. However, if it doesn't double in less than 6 hours, I would say that's a sign it may not work very well to make bread.

Once it is more healthy, you might want to use a feeding ratio of more like 10:45:50, which is 90% hydration also, but seems to work well with a 12 hour cycle at about 75F, as far as I can tell.

Bill

bwraith's picture
bwraith

Annie,

I know there's been some discussion of refrigeration being a problem with starter maintenance. Here are some thoughts about how and when to use it.

1) Try to make your sure your starter is very healthy before you start refrigerating. You want to have the highest cell counts possible, since the organisms in the culture will begin to die off in the low temperatures. To that end, become familiar with how fast the starter rises at various temperatures and try to feed it in a very habitual cycle that you will recognize, like 10:45:50 every 12 hours at room temperature. Only store it when it has been through enough feeding cycles to be recognizably vigorous and healthy.

2) Before putting the starter in the refrigerator, feed it in such a way that it will be thicker than usual, and don't let it become too mature. Only just let it double or even much less. According to Bread Builders and others, yeast survive better at colder temperatures in a lower acid environment, so you don't want to store a very ripe culture in the refrigerator.

3) When you take the starter out of the refrigerator, let it warm up for a while, then you definitely want to feed it in the habitual same cycle several times, so it fully recovers to its normal "room temperature" well fed and vigorous state before you put it back in the refrigerator for storage.

4) Ideally, it's better to just feed on the counter at room temperature, as Susanfnp has described. However, if you need to take breaks at times, as I do, then I've found that storing it as above works just fine.

You can delay the use of a levain this way too, if you store it before it has fully matured, like when it has just doubled. I've found refrigeration can be very helpful for strategically changing your baking schedule according to your convenience. The flexibility and freedom this affords is valuable to me, and I find it makes little if any difference.

Bill

AnnieT's picture
AnnieT

Bill, thank you so much for all of the information which I will do my best to understand. Might take several readings. I hadn't thought of keeping my starter out all the time so no wonder it rebelled at being chilled. Today my house is just over 70* and it rarely gets much warmer than that here. I think I'm a cheapskate and didn't like the idea of tossing out starter when feeding, hence the storing in the refrigerator as I'm not baking all the time. I do appreciate all of your help. By the way, I do make Will's baguette quite often and love the crumb. Has he been baking this summer? Thanks again, A

bwraith's picture
bwraith

Annie,

Your conditions sound good for starting and maintaining a sourdough starter - a little above 70F. To start one, it's really best to have the temperature right around 80F, but maintaining it at a little over 70F should work very well, and starting one at around 72F may take longer, but it should start up without any trouble at that temperature.

The trick with refrigeration is just to realize it is more of a storage technique in this case. You need the starter to be in good condition before you put it in the refrigerator, and it shouldn't be very ripe when it goes in, and it preferably should be thickened up to a very thick paste or even to a dough consistency, as in ZB's write-up about Glezer's firm starter.

However, if it's convenient for you to feed the starter on a more or less daily schedule, then there is not much reason to refrigerate. The starter will be better off without it, as long as you can maintain the temperatures and feed on a reasonable schedule. For me, the refrigeration storage method is very helpful, since I leave the house often enough and for long enough periods, that I really want to put my sourdough baking "on hold" for periods of time.

bwraith's picture
bwraith

Annie,

One small detail about how to feed the starter is to add the water first, then stir vigorously to fully dissolve the starter in the water and froth it up well. A small whisk can be very good for this part, but a fork works well too. Then, add the flour and mix it well, but I don't think it matters so much at this point if you really stir it very vigorously. It just needs to be well mixed. If you are experiencing a starter that is sluggish and you are feeding it a little rye along with the white flour, it may help to occasionally stir the starter. However, I've never bothered to stir my healthy starter. The one mixing up of the starter after the feeding is more than enough to keep it going, and I like being able to monitor how long it takes to rise by double. It may be helpful to get a little extra growth out of the culture to stir it after it has doubled and let it rise for a few more hours. However, I just let mine rise to triple or more and then collapse, which happens in about 12 hours with a 10g:45g:50g feeding at about 75F, before feeding it again.

Bill

AnnieT's picture
AnnieT

Bill, you are an absolute treasure and I feel I am being a nitwit to need so much help! I did work on both of my "old" starters - I took a cup of each one and added a cup of KA all purpose flour and 3/4cup of spring water to each one. Also washed each container and put tape to mark the levels. This was at 11.45am and noon, and it is now 3.35pm and each one has doubled. I also added a little rye flour to the "experiment" without much sign of improvement. I have no clue how many grams are in a cup (I said I was mathmatically challenged) so I probably should have weighed a smaller amount. Maybe I will put a notice on the community board to see whether anyone else here would like some sourdough starter? Now all I have to do is explain to my d-in-l why I have three jars on the counter - good thing my son is away, I could just see his eyes rolling. They think I'm strange anyway, but they keep eating the bread! I do always add water to the starter first and stir like crazy. So now I need to wait until they triple and collapse before feeding again - which I assume will be midnight? I can imagine the neighbors wondering what the heck I am doing playing with flour and water at that time of night. Except they are all old like me and if they're sensible they will be asleep. Many thanks, your help was above and beyond the call of duty, A (If you ever need any help with quilting or crosstitch let me know)

bwraith's picture
bwraith

Annie,

Well, I probably will mess this up, as I do everything by the scale. However, a simple feeding strategy might be to put 1 tablespoon of your old starter in a jar and add 2 tablespoons of water and 4 tablespoons of flour to it. I think you could do that every 6-12 hours and bring it to life, especially if you sprinkle in a little very fresh whole rye. If it is doubling with the feeding you're giving it, that's good. I think it will be more convenient and become more vigorous over time with a little bit higher feeding ratio that allows it more time where it isn't very ripe. However, there are lots of people who feed their starters daily at somewhat lower ratios as you are describing above.

Bill

bwraith's picture
bwraith

Annie,

I saw SourdoLady's post and agree very much with her points. I always start each feeding with a new clean container. I have two jars and just switch from one to the other on each feeding.

I measure volumes as I fed this last time, and what I do typically these days is take one teaspoon of old starter and put it in a clean jar. Then, I add two tablespoons of water and stir it vigorously to get a nice frothy mixture. Then, I add 3 tablespoons plus 1 to 2 teaspoons or so of flour. One person's tablespoon of flour may not be quite the same weight as another person's, and you are using AP, whereas I happen to be using bread flour, so you need to adjust by a teaspoon or two one direction or the other to get a consistency that suits you. I repeat that feeding about every 12 hours and leave the starter at room temperature.

I make mine a thick paste, sometimes almost a dough, but it's not that critical one way or the other. It is useful to to be consistent with each feeding, so the signs of ripening can be monitored from one feeding to the next.

Oh, and with the feeding method I'm describing above, i.e. using 1tsp to 2tbsp water, and 3+ tbsp of flour, it will typically rise in something like 6 hours, but starters vary. It is designed to be fed every 12 hours, so you can see the idea is to let it double and then some before you feed it again. If it doesn't double in about 9 hours, try using 2 or 3 tsp of starter with the same feeding as above. If things are working right, it should rise sooner after a few feedings with the larger amount of old starter and eventually you can go back to using only 1 tsp of old starter in the feeding.

Bill

SourdoLady's picture
SourdoLady

I think I know what is causing you all your starter problems. You mentioned several times that you do not like to throw any of your old starter away. You must get over that! You are poisoning your starter by allowing it wallow in its own waste. When a starter is fed it consumes the nutrients (starches) in the flour and then the yeast cells divide and reproduce, so you have WAY more hungry yeast babies to feed. There is no more food left until you feed again so what you have is thousands (millions?) of yeast babies swimming in waste. When you dump out a bunch of it you are eliminating a lot of the waste and thinning down the number of hungry yeasties. NOW, when you feed everyone will have a full meal and reward you with increased vigor.

 Learn to keep smaller amounts of starter. I usually only keep 1/4 cup in the fridge. When I want to bake with it, I just take it out and feed it enough so that I have what my recipe calls for and a bit left over to save. I seldom have to throw much away. You mentioned taking a cup of starter and feeding it a cup of flour. That is not enough food. You should have used 1/4 cup starter and 1 cup flour. Try it and see if it doesn't improve your starter. Good luck!

AnnieT's picture
AnnieT

SourdoLady, thank you so much for your comments. Wallowing in waste? How gross, and I thought I was treating the little yeasties so well. I bit the bullet and tossed all but 1/4cup of one, to which I added 1cup of flour and 3/4cup spring water. I told them it hurt me more than it did them as they swirled down the drain. So now I have 3 containers on the counter - one with your suggestion, one with Bill's tiny amount, and one of the original ones. Luckily my grandaughters asked for sourdough pancakes tomorrow so I was able to donate some there. I guess I have anxiety about just keeping such a small amount of starter on hand. When you say just 1/4cup in the fridge, how much and how often do you have to feed it ready to bake? To think I had the nerve to send starter to my son and a friend - and acted as though I knew what I was doing. I really appreciate you and Bill being willing to help, A

SourdoLady's picture
SourdoLady

If my starter has been used and fed within, say the past 7 to 10 days, I take it out of the fridge the evening before I want to use it and feed it. I use 1/4 cup of starter and 1 cup of flour. I then let it sit on the counter, covered, until morning and then mix up my dough. If the starter has been in the fridge for several weeks without feeding, I will pour off all but a couple of spoonfuls, feed that about 1/2 cup of flour, wait until it doubles or triples and then feed it again without pouring off any. This feeding should be large enough to build the amount of starter needed for the recipe, plus a little extra.

If your starter has been in storage for quite a long time and is very dormant, you may need a third feeding before using it to bake with. After awhile you will learn to tell by looking at it whether it is at its best.

I'll be waiting to hear how your experimental feedings work out!

browndog's picture
browndog

SourdoLady, what does starter at its best look like? My starter looks different ways at different times, but I couldn't begin to decipher any messages. What should I be looking for in prime starter?

SourdoLady's picture
SourdoLady

Starter that is in prime condition will be very bubbly, almost foamy throughout. When you scoop up a spoonful and then dump it off the spoon it should be light and full of bubbles. It is really hard to describe and I'm not sure I could capture it in a picture. Maybe I will try, so stay tuned!

bwraith's picture
bwraith

Annie,

My version of using tiny amounts is to build the levain/starter/sponge/whatever you want to call the "starter that goes into the dough" by taking some of my starter from the jar and adding the right amount of flour and water needed in that "recipe starter". Then let the "recipe starter" rise at room temperature. Depending on how large the "recipe starter" is, it may take a while for it to rise, but basically, once it has risen and peaked, it's ready to use. Typically it would take a few hours to as much as 12 hours for the starter to be ready.

As SourdoLady says, how many feedings you need to give your starter to revive it depends on how long it has been in the refrigerator if you are using refrigeration for storage. I find that in the first 3 days, I can get away with only one feeding or even use the starter as is. If it's been a week, it might take two feedings. Any longer than that, and I would probably do 3 feedings to feel confident it was fully restored.

Healthy starters vary in how they look and rise or show activity, so the best thing is to just become familiar with your own starter. For one that is maintained as a paste, it would typically be fairly smooth in consistency and riddled with holes if you stir it and look inside, smell pleasant and maybe flowery. The rise time will vary, but as I mentioned a guideline would be about 6 hours to double if you feed as I described above.

I know I would eventually forget to remove a small bit of the "recipe starter" to continue my starter, so before I do anything else, I always take the 1 tsp of starter, put it in a new jar, and add the 2 tbsp of water and 3-4 tbsp of flour. That way, I know I've done that and kept my starter going. Otherwise, I'm quite sure I would eventually bake some bread forgetting to remove a bit of levain and lose my starter.

Bill

SourdoLady's picture
SourdoLady

Here are some pics I took recently of a starter proofing. The first picture is after one hour (see mark on jar for starting level). The middle pic shows that it has risen and then fallen (see the marks on the side of the jar. The final pic is how it looked at its max, which would be when it is ready to use. You can click on the pics to enlarge them for a clearer view. Oh, and this is a liquid starter, which makes a difference on appearance and rising levels.

browndog's picture
browndog

Thanks, SourdoughLady. The pictures are a great help--I'm relieved to say that my starter does sometimes resemble jar #3.

AnnieT's picture
AnnieT

Well, guys, looks as though I will have to start over - with a new starter. The only one I have any hope for is the tiny amount Bill recommended, which I stirred together and put in the refrigerator immediately. I took it out this evening and it was stiff and had nary a bubble, so I added some water and some rye flour and whisked it well. It may or may not be bubbly before I go to bed. The other ones are very strange, more the texture of custard and shiny. Bubbles on the surface but none through the rest. I have tossed more flour down the sink and cleaned out the old starters, just using enough to (hopefully) get things revving up again. That's the bad news. The good news is that I used some of the polluted starter before I tossed it to make Dan Lepard's White Thyme and Olive bread, and it turned out amazingly well. Admittedly it also uses yeast - fresh in his case, instant in mine, but the dough was ebullient, bountiful, bodacious. The bread tasted great and made a lovely tomato sandwich for lunch. Yesterday was my baking day because I also made Memo's Brown bread. I have had the Hodgson Mill graham flour but never got around to cooking the potato until yesterday. Two beautiful loaves. Good to have some successes to balance the duds. I'll let you know how things work out, A

bwraith's picture
bwraith

Annie,

Sorry, but I guess I must have misled you back there somewhere. I was suggesting that you leave the starter out at room temperature for 12 hours after feeding it as described (1tsp old starter, 2 tbsp water, 3 to 4 tbsp flour) and then feed it again and leave it out at room temperature for 12 hours, and so on, until it is healthy.

In other words, there is no refrigeration involved unless you want to store it away for a while. Basically, until it is healthy, it wants to be fed repeatedly and left to rise at room temperature in between feedings.

But yes, if you do refrigerate it to store it, it makes sense to feed it, then put it in the refrigerator soon after, before it has ripened.

Bill

AnnieT's picture
AnnieT

Bill, you didn't mislead me at all. I just had containers all over the counter, which isn't large to begin with, and I remembered that it was better to refrigerate it at once, so I did. Figured I had enough to do with the other ones. I was reading PR on starters and he talks about frequent stirring or whisking, so I just gave all 3 a goodly agitation in hopes of reviving them. By the way, if all is lost and I need to start over, what do you think about the pineapple juice method? Onward and upward, A

bwraith's picture
bwraith

Hi Annie,

Well if you want to start over, there are lots of ways, and I don't think it matters too much. They all seem to work with a little persistence. If you made me pick one right now, I'd probably go with the Glezer method. ZB wrote a very good summary of it on a thread here on TFL. SourdoLady has a very good write-up on her blog explaining how to do her pineapple juice method. I know it works too, and many have used it successfully here on the site.

Bill